By Francis Fukuyama
TOKYO, March 18, KyodoEveryone in the United States has been watching with horror and sympathy the terrible events that have unfolded in Japan in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and now the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant. The scenes of destruction are unbelievable, but so are the stories coming out of Japan about the endurance of the victims of the disaster, as well as the heroism of those trying to help them.
There will be more tragedy in the days to come as bodies are recovered, but also new stories of enormous sacrifices made by people on behalf of their fellow citizens, particularly I suspect at the nuclear power plant. The Japanese people have reacted to this tragedy with great dignity and, despite the circumstances, calm. I am not sure that other societies would react in a similar manner.
The earthquake and tsunami remind us not just about how powerful nature is, but also about the degree to which an advanced technological society becomes dependent on complex systems, and how helpless individuals become when they lose access to cellphones, the Internet or more basic things like electricity and water.
This is not, however, the first time that the Japanese people have had to endure enormous suffering and trauma. This happened at the time of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, and at the conclusion of the Pacific War. In a sense, the Japanese people have been at their best when confronted with setbacks and suffering. They understand how to come together for national renewal, and readily undertake a spirit of self-sacrifice for the common good.
My hope is that this national tragedy will be the occasion for a new kind of Japanese politics. In recent years, Japan has suffered from the infighting of a political class that has been much more interested in scoring points against rivals for short-term gain, rather than trying to work seriously with one another to solve Japan's serious long-term challenges. In this respect, they are behaving very much like their American counterparts, who have been polarized and ineffective in dealing with the country's long-term problems.
Japan is the first developed country that will face the fact of population aging and decline, and all of the economic and fiscal challenges that come with it. What Japan has needed, but has not had, is political leadership that can rise above the petty wrangling and lead the nation toward the kinds of common sacrifices that will be needed to restore the nation's long-term economic health.
It is an unfortunate fact about human nature that it sometimes takes a major trauma to waken people from the complacency of business as usual. Responding in the short term to the tsunami will test everyone's resilience, but it may pave the way toward a stronger sense of national purpose that will last beyond the immediate crisis. If that happens, then the suffering of those affected by this disaster will not have been entirely in vain.
(Francis Fukuyama is a senior fellow at Stanford Univerity's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.)